The ketogenic diet — better known as “keto”— is having a bit of a moment right now. It’s been wildly popular on social media in recent weeks, and Google searches for keto-related terms have skyrocketed since the New Year; celebrities the likes of Tim Tebow and Kourtney Kardashian have touted it as a detox, or a “reset button” for the body. The idea is that you can lose weight by replacing the body’s typical go-to energy source — carbs — with fats. That means its followers are downing things like whipped cream, mayonnaise, butter, and cheese. So much cheese.
If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because, well, it just might be for a lot of people. We did some research on whether it’s worth a try.
What exactly is a ketogenic diet?
The keto diet is an eating plan that consists of 80 percent fat and little to no carbohydrates. Staples of the keto diet are fish, meat, eggs, dairy, oils, and green vegetables. Pasta, rice and other grains, potatoes, and fruits are strictly prohibited.
Keto works by changing the way the body turns food into energy. Typically, during digestion, we break down carbohydrates — like those found in the verboten foods above — into molecules of fructose, galactose, and glucose, the last of which serves as the body’s primary source of energy. When the body can’t draw it from carbohydrates — either because they’ve been cut out of the diet or because a person hasn’t eaten for a long time — it looks for other forms of energy. The keto diet deliberately places the body in a state of ketosis, where fat is released from cells and turned into ketones, the body’s plan B for energy production.
Where did the keto diet start?
I want to start by saying that the keto diet is most assuredly not a fad, at least not in the usual sense of the word. It would have been how a lot of our ancestors would have eaten until the introduction of agriculture. However, in modern times It’s been termed ‘keto’ and is around for nearly a century, and has its roots in the medical world: In the 1920s, epilepsy researchers found that increased levels of ketones in their patients resulted in fewer seizures, and the diet is still a widely accepted treatment for epilepsy today. There’s also some evidence that a ketogenic diet has therapeutic potential for a wide array of symptoms and diseases, including cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, neurological conditions, diabetes, and even acne.
So how did it become a trendy weight-loss diet?
Firstly, I would like to say that I hate using the word diet, especially when talking about Ketosis – it is a way of eating. It has probably become trendy as a weight-loss diet because some celebs have lost weight on it, simple! Though ‘keto’ has been gaining popularity recently thanks to celebrity endorsements and a wealth of diet-adherent Pinterest recipes, this is the first time a form of it has gone mainstream. “We have been seeing different variations on the low-carb diet for decades,” says Abbey Sharp, a registered dietician and nutrition blogger.
“The Atkins diet and the Dukan diet are two variations of a ketogenic diet. The idea of ketosis is definitely not new — we’ve just seen it repackaged in a new, sexy way as of late.”
What can I expect on the keto diet?
You’ll likely experience a rocky start as the liver begins to turn fat into ketones to be used as energy. “At the beginning, it is very uncomfortable, since our body is not used to this form of fuel,” Sharp says. “You tend to experience brain fog, headaches, nausea, and fatigue, along with bad-smelling breath, sweat, and urine. There are two ways to get into ketosis – 1. fasting until your glycogen reserves have been depleted and your body switches to using fats for fuel. 2. A slow transition by gradually cutting back on your carbohydrate intake and increasing your fat intake, done with a calorie deficit meal plan so that your body can use up those remaining glycogen stores. When Abbey Sharp mentions some of the side effects above, they are generally linked to the former method, of fasting. “We also tend to see a big drop in our electrolyte levels as we lose water weight, which also makes us feel crummy.” This condition is sometimes called the “Keto flu.”
As your body levels out over time, many of these symptoms will subside, and things get better. Some research even points to enhanced cognitive activity and focus as the brain gets used to running on ketones.
In the first days of the diet, your regular workout might prove exhausting without carbs to keep you going.
Should I try it?
The keto diet is a particularly bad idea, Sharp cautions, for anyone with a history of disordered eating. “It’s just so restrictive that it interferes with daily interactions with food and a person’s relationship with food,” she says. “That’s counter-intuitive to mindful eating, and may lead to dangers.”
For some people, though, a keto diet has one big perk: Its high-fat foods leave adherents feeling sated without needing to snack between meals. And while it can be difficult to get all the nutrients and fibre you need without whole grains and fruits, “it is definitely possible,” Sharp says. “You will need to be well in tune with the micro-nutrients in the foods you’re including in your diet to ensure you’re covering all of your bases. You may also want to consider a supplement.”
Okay, but does it work?
At first, yes. In the early weeks of the diet, you’ll drop a noticeable number of pounds while eating a satisfying amount of food.
Unfortunately, Sharp says that type of weight loss is not sustainable. “It’s largely water weight,” she says. “We store about six grams of water for every gram of carbohydrate, so when our carb stores are depleted, we drop a ton of water weight at once.” And if it’s increased energy you’re after, studies of cyclists and professional gymnasts have found no significant change to performance or muscle mass over several months of a ketogenic diet.
If you still want to try the keto diet, it’s important to talk to your doctor first about your body’s nutrient needs, your cholesterol levels, and your risk of heart disease. For a diet that has this dramatic an effect on the inner workings of your body, best to equip yourself with advice of a medical professional. When it comes to your health, you don’t always have to keep up with the Kardashians — but if you do, don’t do it on your own.
I do agree with what Abbey Sharp says about this way of eating being a bad idea for anyone with a history of disordered eating. I would like to add one thing to this though – any way of eating which is deemed a restriction to you for whatever reason isn’t healthy – what is the point in forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to be doing?? If you REALLY want to lose weight understand that there is a journey and a process involved, you don’t just suddenly wake up one morning in the body you have always wanted.
Losing weight in the form of body fat comes down to creating a calorie deficit just like trying to build muscle requires a calorie surplus. If you are solely looking at a certain way of eating (diet), be it Atkin’s, Dukan etc… for either weight loss or muscle gain, then there is a problem straight away. Please read that line again, and again, until it sinks in.
The MOST important criteria is looking at a way of eating from a health and longevity perspective and then creating the environment for either weight loss or muscle gain by creating the deficit or surplus I mentioned above, and then following this plan consistently. There is no magic formula here! Can you lose weight on a typical 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates and 30% fat based meal plan. Yes, of course, but again it comes down to creating that calorie deficit. Is this way of eating healthy for us?? For some people it is, for others it is not, it depends on your body type – some of us respond better to a higher carbohydrate diet, some don’t. Similarly, is the ketogenic diet for everyone? No, some people respond better to a high fat diet and see noticeable improvements in energy and body composition ONCE they are monitoring their macro-nutrient and fibre intakes. Others don’t!
In the past I have followed a ketogenic meal plan and recently I have adopted this way of eating again. Why? Because it seems to suit my body type, I feel better, I have more energy and in the past 2 weeks I have dropped 5% body fat and gained 4 lbs of lean muscle. Remember what I said above though before you start racing down to the supermarkets looking for all things ‘keto’. My goal initially was to find a way of eating which enhanced my health and longevity and then I focused on alternating between a calorie deficit and a calorie surplus to reduce body fat and gain muscle.
Another reason I decided to adopt the keto way on a more permanent basis is because of a lot research I have been doing around it lately.
Dr. Peter Attia, Dr. Dominic D’Agostino and Patrick Arnold, some of the top researchers in the world in the areas of disease and metabolic therapies all follow a ketogenic way of eating.
They have spoken, I am happy to listen.
To your health and fitness,